Sargent Shriver's grace

Sargent Shriver in San Francisco in 1972 as the Democratic vice presidential candidate.
Sargent Shriver in San Francisco in 1972 as the Democratic vice presidential candidate. (Lennox Mclendon)

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By Colman McCarthy
Wednesday, January 19, 2011

It took only a walk with Sargent Shriver to learn how deeply loved and loving he was. Former Peace Corps volunteers, from the early days of the program that he began in 1961, or ones just back from stints in Third World outposts, would stop Sarge to thank him, embrace him and tell him stories about their life-changing service.

Countless others approached him on airport concourses, city sidewalks and elsewhere: people whose lives were changed because of the anti-poverty programs that Shriver started in the Johnson administration - Legal Services, Head Start, Job Corps, Community Action,VISTA, Upward Bound. Or the parents of children in Special Olympics, the program began by Shriver and his wife, Eunice, that revolutionized the way we treat those with mental disabilities. Occasionally, it was someone from Massachusetts who voted for the McGovern-Shriver ticket in the 1972 presidential campaign - Massachusetts and the District being the only places they won while the rest of America, narcotized, backed the soon-to-be disgraced Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew.

In the three years - 1966-69 - that I worked as Sarge's speechwriter, traveling companion and suitcase carrier, I saw hundreds of these random moments. Hale and always effulgent, Sarge gave full attention to each greeter. It was a style of honest generosity that came naturally, a pole removed from the grip-and-grin fakeries of American politics.

At his death Tuesday, after years of Alzheimer's disease, the legions with whom Shriver had shared himself were no doubt recalling those chance run-ins as encounters with grace.

It was certainly that way for me. In the summer of 1966, I was roaming the country writing freelance articles about the civil rights movement: a week in Cicero, Ill., where Martin Luther King Jr. was trying to integrate housing; a week in Mound Bayou, Miss., an all-black Delta community scraping by. I sold a story to the National Catholic Reporter, a nascent liberal weekly already on its way to becoming a beacon of conscience-based journalism.

Sarge happened to read it. He tracked me down, not to jab back about the program of his I had criticized but to say that he had a staff opening for "a no-man, because I already have enough yes-men." He was running the newly created Office of Economic Opportunity and needed help with speeches, he said. He invited me to Washington for an interview.

I thought my chances were nil. Months before, I had emerged from a Trappist monastery in Georgia where strictly cloistered priests and brothers were God's inmates. Five years with no newspapers, magazines, television or other damnable frivolities, I'd been bricked out of secular society. Why would Shriver hire me?

For the make-or-break interview, we went to dinner. For four hours, the talk was not about pending legislation, Lyndon Johnson's White House or Republican attacks on the Peace Corps. Instead, it was theology and spirituality, the turf on which I been trodding, however unsteadily.

Shriver, amazingly, wanted to discuss Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, Hans Kung, Tertullian, Leon Bloy, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and others. He told of inviting Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker to speak at Yale during his student days. A couple of times I couldn't keep up, as when he riffed on the differences between the early, middle and late writings of Saint Teresa of Avila.

At dinner's end, Sarge hired me - a flashpoint moment in my life. A spirited public orator, he needed a speechwriter like Stradivarius needed help stringing violins. Once at work, I learned that I wasn't the only one with a background in religion. He was hiring so many former nuns and priests that OEO could have stood for Office of Ecclesiastical Outcasts. Sarge's Catholicism ranged from ordinary pieties - a rosary was always in his pocket - to mindfulness of the church's teachings on social justice and nonviolence.

It infused his thinking, as when he said in 1981 at a reunion of Peace Corps volunteers: "The cure is care. Caring for others is the practice of peace. Caring becomes as important as curing. Caring produces the cure, not the reverse. Caring about nuclear war and its victims is the beginning of a cure for our obsession with war. Peace does not comes through strength. Quite the opposite: Strength comes through peace. The practices of peace strengthen us for every vicissitude. . . . The task is immense!"

For four decades, Sarge was my closest friend outside of my family. I said goodbye to him a few days ago during a visit at his apartment. I thanked him for everything. He had difficulty speaking, so he communicated by reaching for my hand. He kissed it and held it for half an hour, without a word between us. None was needed. He was saying that he loved me, the way he told all those people at airports and byways that they, too, were lovable.

Colman McCarthy, a former Post columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace and teaches courses on nonviolence at four Washington area universities and two high schools.


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